To the Communicators,
Undoubtedly you have heard over and over that it's harder to learn a new language when you're older than when you are younger. I can say that it makes sense for a number of reasons, and I can even give some analogies as to why that is the case. However, I want to discuss learning a language in general as we did with our primary language.
When we were toddlers, as we did not have the ability to comprehend, we were allowed to eavesdrop and listen to people speaking all the time. This allowed us to subconsciously learn the different sounds we can make.
However, when it comes to understanding someone, speed is key. Not only the speed at which the other person speaks, but the speed at which you can translate what was said. It's often not recognized as such, but our brains actually translate from our "primary" language to our imagination. This is why when someone says "pink elephant" you "immediately" think of one. Your brain did a translation of the words and converted it into the image. This might also explain why abstract thinking can be so difficult to teach and learn. Also, the reason why learning a second language is hard, at least by the current methodology, is because we go through an additional translation process. This slows down our comprehension speed.
Perhaps the biggest thing that aids in our comprehension speed is the phrase "predictive analysis". You may have heard that with computers and artificial intelligence, but it's actually what we practice when we listen. The most famous example is when couples are able to confidently and accurately finish each other's sentences. When we are able to predict what is about to be said, that allows our brains to comprehend much faster. This is also why when we encounter some words we don't know or a pronunciation we are not familiar with, our comprehension drops.
This is why lectures need to be slightly slower than normal conversation. It's also why if it's too slow that we fall asleep. When we cannot predict what is going to be said next, we need time to comprehend it. However, if we get to the point where we do know what is being said, holding it in our fast memory too long is just exhausting. This is because what happens is our brains are telling us the same predicted word over and over again which breaks the string of words you had already understood. In other words, by speaking too slowly, it actually creates more work for the listener to comprehend.
To be fair, the mind does offer a few tricks into understanding things we don't know. The one we are familiar with is context. Take the name Nick for example. When there is no context, the mind assumes that someone saying the word "Nick" is calling a person (or a dog) but in the context, "I made in the nick of time," a person named Nick will rarely assume he's being called. This is because the context helps clue in the meaning of the sentence. Likewise, by reading the context, one is able to assume what the meaning of an unknown word is and progress. Context also happens to be the key for "predictive analysis".
Because the context is the key to understanding something, that is why it is not enough to repeat vocabulary when learning a language. By practicing sentences and grammar, you are able to learn context of the phrases and better predict them when someone is talking to you. I often find myself having to listen to a conversation twice, and I figure out that I knew the words but I couldn't comprehend them fast enough to understand the sentence the first time. The more you practice, the more you are able to sort and grasp the individual words and sentences. By doing this, you speed up the translation process to your brain and develop your predictive analysis and with those taken care of, you are on your way to mastering a language.
Anyways, that is enough theorizing today. Hopefully you find this useful if you are studying a new language. If you think it is lacking, then feel free to send me a comment.
N. D. Moharo